We’ve written a lot about how the new Democratic majority in the General Assembly seems as disinclined as the previous Republican one to do anything about disparities between Virginia’s most affluent schools and its poorest ones.
A Senate committee punted until next year a proposed constitutional amendment (from state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County) that would guarantee “equal educational opportunities” for all students.
Another Senate committee killed a proposed advisory referendum (also from Stanley) on whether the state should issue $3 billion in bonds for school construction, an issue for all localities, but especially those in financially stressed central cities and rural areas.
A House committee killed even a more modest proposal (from Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington) to revive a pre-recession fund to provide grants for school construction. O’Quinn said a Democratic delegate told him that Democrats had to kill the bill because “it came from higher up,” presumably the governor’s office. We’re especially disappointed to see that Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, went along with this because he ought to know the financial pressures on rural localities. A similar version by state Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington, remains alive in the state Senate; we’ll see if it meets a similar fate.
We understood why a Republican General Assembly didn’t want to deal with school disparity — the solution is likely to cost a lot of money. We’re mystified at why Democrats, who like to think they are more sympathetic to social justice issues, are now so disinterested. We hate to be cynical, but we can’t help but notice the new Democratic leadership is almost entirely from Northern Virginia, and school disparity isn’t really a problem in the most affluent part of the state.
Now, having said all that, we must point out something that is happening that could address part of the problem. State Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, has a bill that would set up a State Commission on School Construction and Modernization to study the matter and make recommendations. This week it passed the state Senate 40-0 and now goes to the House.
Before we explain why this bill is a good thing, let’s first register more frustration. Virginia doesn’t need a study to document how many schools are “crumbling” — the phrase that Gov. Ralph Northam employed in his inaugural address two years ago. There are no unknown facts that need to be unearthed here, because they are all quite well known. McClellan’s own press release cites a 2013 state report — commissioned by Gov. Bob McDonnell — on the age of Virginia schools. In 2018, when Republicans controlled the General Assembly and Stanley was a committee chair, he created a special panel to recommend solutions. That committee toured the state looking at schools that were, quite literally, falling apart. It heard testimony about how many old schools can’t handle modern technology. Out of that committee came Stanley’s proposal for a bond issue — along with other bills on providing money to fix roofs, which is where many buildings first start to fall apart. McClellan knows all this because she was on that committee — and she still voted to kill the advisory referendum on bonds.
What we have here seems a classic case of one party stealing a good idea from the other side and rebranding it. Instead of a Republican-sponsored study, we now will get a Democratic-sponsored study. We could use action instead.
Now, having vented about the incremental and often-partisan nature of the legislature, let’s say some good words about McClellan’s proposed commission.
Stanley’s effort clearly didn’t generate public support to demand a legislative fix; perhaps McClellan’s commission will. If passed, it would have a stronger legislative mandate than Stanley’s initiative, which was his and his alone.
The commission would be peopled not just by 10 legislators but also by three citizen members and four state officials — the Superintendent of Public Instruction, the Director of the Department of General Services, the Executive Director of the Virginia Resources Authority, and the Director of the Department of Planning and Budget. “In short, it brings executive decision-makers on education to the table,” says a McClellan spokesman. That is true. The commission would also be required to submit a report every year, “which means it can have more staying power and leverage in a multi-year effort to fix schools,” according to McClellan’s office. That is also true.
Stanley’s proposed bond issue jumped straight to a conclusion. McClellan’s proposed commission is a slower route to what will surely be the same conclusion, even if the details are different: Any fix is going to cost the state money. We wish the public support was there now, but it’s not.
The business community seems particularly disinterested and few things of this magnitude happen without the engagement of the business community. You can bet that if the captains of Virginia industry were pushing for better schools the way certain interests are for casinos, the legislature would be a lot more attentive.
If this commission is what it takes to build a political coalition, then it’s a step forward — just not as big a one as we could be taking right now. Legislating, though, is not romance — holding out for “the one.” It’s public transport — will this bus get us closer to our destination than we are now? We can complain that McClellan’s bill only goes part of the way, but the point is, it’s here now so Virginia better get on board.
We’ve chided Democrats because they’re now the majority party and like to claim that they are the best champions of public education — their lack of enthusiasm for fixing school disparity seems at odds with their rhetoric. We’re glad to see McClellan breaking from the pack on this issue. Republicans aren’t off the hook, though. They represent most of the rural areas where the problem is often acute.
We notice that when Mecklenburg County asked permission to add a local sales tax for school construction, only three of the Senate’s 19 Republicans had the gumption to vote “yes.” How do they think Mecklenburg should pay for schools?
There’s a lot of silence from both sides in Richmond, which is why we should be grateful for McClellan’s bill, even if we still wish we didn’t have to endure yet another study before getting to any action.